Wellesley College Students Explore Green Living in Cooperative Housing

March 16, 2009

Molly Tarantino

WELLESLEY, Mass. -- Kale and walnut pesto pasta, Swiss chard lemon stir-fry, quiche with summer squash and zucchini, and cream of fennel soup. All these gourmet goodies are the organic creations of the student residents of Wellesley’s sustainability co-op housing, who have made a commitment to buying and cooking locally and sustainably.

Members of the sustainability co-op host an open house to promote awareness, activism and community on the Wellesley College campus.

Also essential to the new model of co-op living on campus is a community-based lifestyle. Nine students currently live in the sustainable housing wing of Simpson Hall on the Wellesley College campus in rooms that share a common living area and kitchen.  The residents each have specific jobs and put in an equal amount of time to save money and enjoy better food. They cook four to five times a week and eat communally while discussing their days – and new ways to promote activism and sustainability on campus.

“We all had a strong commitment to the environment before living here but we’re learning a lot from each other,” said Wellesley College senior Asha Stenquist, a geosciences and economics major from Saint Paul, Minn. “There are things that others do to live sustainably that I’ve never thought of doing. We really encourage each other.”

The push toward green living happened as students were preparing to pick their housing assignments for the fall 2008.

“I didn’t want to live in a dorm for food reasons and community reasons,” said junior Jennie Hatch, a mathematics major from Whitefield, Maine. “I was looking around at my options and began wondering why we didn’t have green living on campus.”

Hatch’s feelings were echoed by other students, who came together at a meeting of the student group Wellesley Energy and Environmental Defense, better known as WEED, to discuss the idea.

“It’s frustrating to be in class and learning about environmental issues and not be able to respond to them because of where you’re living,” Stenquist said.

They approached Kris Niendorf and Don Leach, who direct the residential and campus life office, to propose the idea. Both were “super-receptive,” the students say, and made the process of obtaining green housing easy. From there, it became a collaborative process between students, administration and faculty members. Kristina Jones, the director of the botanical gardens at Wellesley, donated a cooler to the co-op to help with the preservation of food. Beth DeSombre, professor of environmental studies, pitched in a teapot.

“The administration has been incredibly supportive of this project and committed to making it work,” Stenquist said.

In their inaugural year, the students have focused on buying and cooking locally and sustainably. They get most of their food from farmer’s markets, community-supported agriculture shares and from their own garden plot  where resident Jo Murphy heads an organic farming venture.  In the cold climate of Massachusetts, eating locally has taken a lot of foresight.

“It’s hard to find people who preserve food that’s local so we’re working on doing that ourselves,” Hatch said.

The students spent time preserving food in the fall—freezing peppers, pesto, tomatoes, greens and berries— to tide them over until fresh, local produce would be available again. Despite the limitations of eating only local produce, the residents say it has been an enjoyable challenge.

Tips on How to Environmentally Activate Your Food Dollar from the Residents of Sustainability Housing

  • Always try to buy local, sustainable produce
  • Eat less meat, or buy locally raised meat
  • Start a garden
  • Buy produce only when in season
  • Talk to your supermarket or grocery store about supporting local farms
  • Join community-supported agricultural programs

“It’s been fun to plan meals around the produce that’s in season,” Hatch said.

In addition to their own efforts to live sustainably, the students provide their living space as a resource center to help connect the campus with environmental and social issues. Residents have held community dinners, volunteered their time with local organizations and organized awareness events—such as a recent Food Justice Summit, where groups came together to discuss how to collaborate. 

During one open house, the residents were joined by community members in decorating tote bags to use at the grocery store, indulging in dishes made from locally grown food and throwing out new ideas, such as starting a radio show about the environment.

“We want this to become a physical space for people to come to gather and discuss environmental issues,” Stenquist said.

While the hall will stick to nine residents again next year, they hope to expand in the near future to focus on larger issues.

“This past year was really a foundational year where we focused on eating locally and defining what a cooperative community should look like,” said Emily Estes, a junior from Buckland, Mass. “Next year we hope to be able to grow a more substantial portion of our food, preserve more local produce for the winter and be more involved in community service events, whether volunteering with the Natick Community Organic Farm or at The Food Project in Boston.”

Estes said the students received a huge amount of applications for the few spots available on the hall for next fall, showing how much steam the idea of cooperative living has picked up on campus since they started just a few months ago.

“We’re trendsetting but also hope to be part of a larger trend on campus,” Estes said.

Since 1875, Wellesley College has been a leader in providing an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world. Its 500-acre campus near Boston is home to 2,300 undergraduate students from all 50 states and 68 countries.